I will be posting a first draft of, hopefully, two chapters a week, and I will probably resume The Action Society posts next month. Enjoy and PLEASE comment.
EPISODE 2: GAMBLING
It took Hachiyama and Takezou a week to reach the hills outside of Tosachi city. The roads and fields were still flooded out. Take care to find a safe route where the horses would not sink and the ground would not give way under hoof was difficult but Takezou managed to find a safe route for them to take. By the time their horses crested the hill, the two were weary from travel, and happy to see their destination in sight. The hill was just high enough that they could see the entire city.
They could the Western Gate of the city; a seven foot wall painted white and gold wrapped itself from gate to gate. The city itself was shrouded in a sea of dreary mist, slowly giving way to the smoke of a hundred thousand breakfasts being cooked and the flickering of hundred thousand lanterns waiting to be put out as the celestial sphere of the sun rose from beyond the horizon and its rays began to bring the city to life. The whole city sloping down to a bay filled with ships from far and wide, guarded by a small navy, providing lifeblood to the capital city of Toza and, therefore, the whole region.
“Hideki likes boats.” Hachiyama mentioned, breaking their silence, as the two men took in the immensity of one of the cornerstones of the Mugen Empire.
“I see,” Takezou gently tapped his heels against the ribs of the black warhorse beneath him, and took the lead, as the two made their way down the hill, “He is a merchant, yes?”
“Well,” Hachiyama paused, “He is very good at making money.”
“He isn’t yakuza, right?”
“Oh no,” Hachiyama paused again, “At least Hideki did not mention anything about yakuza in his letter. He just said he was making good money and that he wanted to visit him.”
Takezou sighed, “I don’t think I would even care if he was yakuza. Just as long I can get a hot bath.”
“We can go get a bath first,” Hachiyama replied, “I will pay.”
“Are you sure, Hachiyama? You do have a tendency to be a little too generous with what little coin you had. When I first saw you, you were on the side of the road, chewing on grass because you gave your last E’in to a wandering monk to pay for him to buy a new rain hat.”
“He was bald.”
“Still, you should not let people take advantage of your generous heart. Some people may view it as a weakness,” Takezou said, “You sure you can afford to pay for two baths?”
“Hideki owes me money,” Hachiyama explained, “We will find him after the bath.”
Takezou just nodded as they approached the Western Gate. On either side of the gate was a man wearing black armor with “Yoshida” painted in yellow on their chests and wielding large spears. The men were bushi, hired warriors, and when they saw the odd couple riding up to the gate, the man on the left side stood in their path, “Halt and state your business.”
Takezou stopped and hopped down from his horse, Hachiyama doing the same (much to his horse’s relief). Takezou held the reins of his horse as he asked, “You’re not city guard or Imperial Troopers? What business do you have asking our business?”
The man glared at Takezou, screwing up his eyes, and his mustache twitched as he spoke, “We are hired men of the Yoshida Conglomerate. The city has us on lone while its guard deal with rebellions in the South.” He pointed to a scroll pinned to the wall behind him, “That is signed by Lord Tenkinaka and that says your business is my business.” He moved his spear into the face of Takezou. The guard looked horrified as he was pulled by the spear to face Hachiyama, whose fist had clamped down on the middle of the spear.
“Do not threaten my friend, please,” Hachiyama said, firmly.
“Hachiyama, please release his spear,” Takezou entreated him. “We have nothing to hide from this man. He is just trying to do his job.” Hachiyama released the spear as Takezou continued, “Please inform the guard of what our plans are, now that we have made it to Tozachi.”
Hachiyama ducked his head a little, “We are here to visit my cousin, Hideki Kahoumono.”
The guard looked at the enormous man and took a step back, “Then, just be aware that the city is patrolled at all times by our men. If you cause any trouble, we will have no qualms with doing our jobs.”
“Surely there will be no qualms to be had. Let’s go Hachiyama.” Takezou said, and the two led their horses into the gates of Tozachi.
First, they visited the local stables and traded in the horses for enough coin to buy a week of mixed rice for Asa-Mura village and then they became determined to find a cheap inn and a decent hot bath for themselves. Hachiyama stopped near the stables and handed him a blind man a coil into his little bowl. Hachiyama spoke softly, “Sir, which way is the Entertainment District?”
The old man looked left to write, with the gaze of a man who once saw more than most, and asked, “We are in front of the stables, correct?”
Hachiyama nodded, then sighed in embarrassment, and replied, “Yes sir?”
“Go a few blocks down this road until you find the Bridge District. Follow the line of black bridges and you will find what you’re looking for soon enough.”
Hachiyama gave a short bow, “Thank you sir,” and they were off, with Hachiyama leading the way, the crowd splitting like river water hitting a rock as they tried to avoid his walking radius. Takezou stayed close behind, his hand on the pummel end of his sword handle as they found their way to the bridges district. It was wear all the paths of the city seemed to meet, stretching over the Toza River as it made its way from the mountains of the South to the sea, and the bridges were a sea of colors. As they walked along the black group of bridges, Takezou couldn’t help but count how many colors there were but found he could not see far enough to count them all. It was a rather pleasant walk. Yet, just as they cross a small group of buildings in the middle of the district where food and drink were being sold, they were stopped in their tracks.
Standing in the middle of the walkway that led to the next black bridge, were about a dozen men, all standing on either side or behind a slender man with dark eyes filled with contempt for what they were looking at. The subject of this contempt was Takezou, a fact made very clear by the owner of the hate-filled eyes, as he barked at Takezou, “You!” The slender man with a chonmage hair style, shaved on top with a top knot in the back, marched forward so he was only a hand’s width away from Takezou, who quickly put his hand on the hilt of his blade, as the man continued, “Are you Takezou of the Black Sun?”
Takezou met the eyes of the slender man, “I am he. And you are?”
By this moment, Hachiyama was standing beside Takezou, keeping an eye on the companions of the slender man as they came up behind him. The slender man’s companions were chattering about “the Black Sun.” A small crowd was gathering in front of the nearby shops, as the man introduced himself, “I am Kenji Hanagawa, samurai of the Toza Han, and Initiate of The Dance of Winds.”
Takezou looked Kenji up and down, his eyes carefully studying the other’s sheathed blades, one on each hip, noting the way the green scabbards curved off into a crescent shape. Takezou looked up at Kenji, “That is a fine title and a fine blade.”
Kenji ignored the compliment, just glaring down at Takezou, “Is it true that you have mastered the first three rises of the Black Sun?”
Takezou nodded, “And the fourth rise, as well.” This caused a small eruption from the crowd behind Kenji; one companion looked furious and shouted,
“Such impudence from a Northern dog. It is one thing for him to wield a blade with such a common hand, it is another to claim to be the inheritor of that false style, and do so while wielding a ninjata!” The companion was red face, with a small mustache, and the fat face of a nobleman’s brat.
“Quiet, Taro.” Kenji corrected his friend with a glance, “Takezou of the Black Sun School, let us prove your mettle in single combat. I am curious myself as how one uses such a small blade and none of us have ever witnessed the swordplay of a Black Sun’s rise. Do you accept my challenge?”
Takezou searched Kenji’s face for a moment, as Hachiyama leaned down and whispered, “Are you sure that you want to do this, Takezou-san?” Takezou nodded at his friend’s question, Hachiyama taking a few steps back, as did everyone else, giving a wide circle around the two swordsman.
“Under one condition,” Takezou rolled his neck around, taking steps back so they were five paces apart, “We fight until one of us falls to severe injury, unconsciousness or one of us surrenders. Then we both leave, alive.”
“Of course,” Kenji slipped the top of his kimono down so that his upper body was exposed, stretching his arms and showing the scars and nicks of a man who had survived many duels and, from what could be seen, no injuries so severe as to force a surrender, “This is a battle for honor and face. I am here to prove my blade against a school that many say is dead or never was.” Kenji glanced back at his gang, “No interference. This battle will be over quickly.”
Takezou took a deep breath, “Who will give us a count?”
Hachiyama cleared his throat and his soft voice somehow filled the area in the middle of the crowd, “I will give the count.”
Kenji and Takezou locked eyes, as Hachiyama shouted, “Three. Two. One. IKE!”
Takezou’s sword was drawn first, Kenji only dodging the blow to his right side by leaping to his left and rolling. He caught himself before he fell back into the crowd and pulled his swords from their scabbards. In that moment, Kenji had lost sight of Takezou, only able to block another blow by swinging his curved blades out, knocking Takezou to the ground.
Kenji came down in a flurry of blows, his curved swords coming down with vicious force, as all Takezou could do was block and dodge, sliding along the ground, trying to get to a point where he could stand. He got his opportunity by rolling to the side and quickly standing up, in a defensive position, just in time for Kenji to turn and unleash another whirlwind of blows.
The crowd cheered as Kenji forced Takezou on the defense. In a moment, Kenji’s form faltered and Takezou swung his sword in a flash upward and knocked Kenji’s blades aside, then swing his sword’s scabbard as a club, hit Kenji across the ribs knocking him back. Kenji stumbled backward, trying to regain his balance, as Takezou came in with another upper cut, this time from the ninjata, cutting a slit in right sleeve, blood dripping down his arm.
Kenji growled, “Damn you!” He held the hilts of his blades close to each other and swung them in large arcs. The force of both blades knocked Takezou back and forced him to dodge the down swings of Kenji’s blade. Takezou let out a shout and from a crouching position swung his sword up and between Kenji’s arms.
The slender swordsman was forced to leap back, letting down his guard, the crowd falling silent as Takezou forced him back. Kenji swung his blades wildly until with one incredible swing from Takezou’s heel to Kenji, the slender swordsman was disarmed and a gash appeared from his chest to his face. He let out a holler and fell to the ground, clutching his face, and screaming in pain. The crowd watched for a moment, surprised by the outcome, as Takezou hilted his sword.
“You said the battle would be over, quickly,” Takezou looked down at Kenji, as the wounded samurai was pulled to his feet, one of his friends holding a rag to his face to try and stop the bleeding, “But the Black Sun rises slowly.”
Hachiyama clapped, and the crowd soon joined in. Takezou turned his back on his defeated foe and began walked toward Hacihyama, “Come on, you owe me a trip to a bathhouse.”
“TAKEZOU! LOOK OUT!” Hachiyama shouted just as Takezou turned to see the red-faced companion of Kenji, Taro, come down on Takezou with a long katana raised above his head.
Takezou only had enough time to swing his blade from his hilt before the other came down on him. Taro missed, but Takezou didn’t. Takezou stood up, pulling his sword free from Taro’s chest, the body of the youth falling silently to the crowd. There were a couple of shrieks at the crowd from the unexpected and quick death.
“Takezou-san! We must leave now!” Hachiyama moved to Takezou’s side just as a group of warriors in black armor, with the symbol for Yoshida painted on their chest plates, surrounded them with spears in hand.
“Sheath your blade, kensei!” One of the bushi demanded, “You are not under arrest but you’re to be taken before Lord Tenkinaka immediately.”
“Why? This was a legal duel and that fool attempted to strike me down. I merely defended myself.” Takezou explained.
“This is irrelevant. You have struck down a samurai, in the city, and not just any samurai. That fool was Prince Taro, the eldest son of Lord Tenkinaka!” The bushi snapped back, as two of his men moved to pick up the slain young man between them. “You will be coming with us and the Lord will decide what to do with you.”
“No,” Hachiyama shook his head, and put his hand on his tetsubo, a large studded club that hand from his belt, “You will not be taking my Takezou-san anywhere.”
The bushi quickly turned their spears on the giant and Takezou intervened, “Wait! Hachiyama, I will be alright. Go find your friend. I will be back soon.” The bushi and Hachiyama lowered their stances, as Takezou surrendered himself to the leader, and had his hands tied behind his back.
As the swordsman was led off by the armed men, down the golden line of bridges to the Sky District, Hachiyama watched, feeling powerless to help his friend. He did not know what to do when he remembered what Takezou had told him to do.
“Hideki-kun,” Hachiyama smiled and made his way toward the black bridges, “He will know what to do about this. He has money. Maybe he can pay for Takezou’s release.”
And he ran off.
Takezou was taken directly to the Tozachi Palace and dragged through the front outer gate. He looked around at the gorgeous courtyard, as his feet were dragged over the Fire Blossom flowers that had fallen from the courtyard’s trees during the weeks of rain, and he had to admire the beauty of what could be very well be his court of final judgment. He had cut down the son of a Lord and it was within the Lord’s power to have him executed. All he could do was hope for the best and be confident in his composure.
He was pulled through a second set of gates, through a smaller courtyard, and finally was taken inside the red walls of the palace. He was allowed to stand on his own two feet, pleased to no longer be dragged, as he was ushered across the smooth and glossy wooden floors, lit by the hundreds of lanterns hanging from every nook and cranny of the walls. Takezou saw them each like blinking little spirits, guiding him to the afterlife, but he knew he would not end up as some ghost. He winced as he was taken into a side room and forced to his knees.
The men then lay the body of his victim in front of him. Takezou looked down and they lifeless eyes of Taro stared up at him. He wanted to shut those accusing eyes but could do nothing. He closed his eyes and tried to meditate, but instead of the peaceful dark of his mind, he was greeted by a sea of unblinking, accusing blank stares. He could feel their accusations tearing at his body, pinching and pulling at his flesh. He heard a voice among them saying his name, when suddenly he felt himself lurch back into reality, as a foot was place squarely in the small of his back and he was pushed to the ground by one of the bushi.
He looked up and saw two men sitting across from him. One was older, probably an elderly advisor, with the eyes of a man who had overseen many worse things than the death of a single young man. The other’s eyes were filled with fury and judgment, obviously belonging to a soldier, and in fact, it was clear that the man on the right had to be a head guardsman or a military advisor. Takezou was suddenly snapped back from his observations, by a throaty sob directly in front of him.
A middle-aged man, in the kimono of an aristocrat, was crouched over the body of Taro and touching his face. Takezou looked down at Taro’s face and was relieved to see his eyes had been closed by the middle-aged man. He looked up and saw a familiar red face, though wizened with age, and reckoned this man must be the boy’s father, Lord Tenkinaka. He watched in silence, waiting to be spoken to, and watched the father try to pull himself together. After a moment, he stood up and then sat between his two advisors. His eyes were without tears but his whole body was tense, as if it would crack, and he would burst into a violent fit of emotion. Instead, he spoke, his voice trembling, “What happened, Takezou of the Black Sun?”
Takezou was surprised to be addressed so formally, “I believe that your son, Taro, he saw me defeat his friend in a duel. He took offense and attacked me without warning. I am afraid that in his moment of reckless abandon he left himself wide open. I defended myself and he fell on my blade. I am sorry, my Lord”
“Don’t be, “Lord Tenkinaka said, staring at his son, “That was not the first time he did something so stupid. He is well-known for his wild temper and lack of courtesy. I am sorry that your name has been sullied with such a sordid deed.”
The military man grunted, “Yes, well, regardless, what shall we do with him? This is a clear insult to your house and we do not want to seem weak.”
The elder shook his head, “This young swordsman defended himself and appears to be an honorable man. We cannot punish him for defending him.”
“Nonsense, Daisuke!” The military man growled, “He is a Northern dog! If we do not kill him the other daimyo will think the master’s house has become weak.”
“Mamore! That is enough!” The lord shouted at the man to his right, who quickly bowed his head, and grunted an apology, “His fate is mine to decide.”
After a few minutes of pushing his way through crowds of people, Hachiyama had made his way to the Entertainment District. It was a couple of blocks of brightly colored buildings stuck close together on an island surrounded by a canal. Outside of the betting parlors, inns, kabuki theaters, and the like, were women wearing alluring and exotic costumes to attract the discerning eyes of a man looking to spend money on a room, a meal, or something else. Between the buildings were dozens of stands selling fast foods, souvenirs, games of chance, fortune telling and anything else one might find at a carnival were being served up under a cloudy sky.
Hachiyama walked past a pair of brothers, two little boys, one having just won a raccoon mask and the other a bunny mask from a vender. The older boy, wearing the raccoon mask, was leading the younger boy away from a fish game. “Hideki-kun loves fish games,” Hachiyama smiled and walked toward the stand.
The stand was made of bamboo and its vendor was wearing an oni mask, a great blue demon face, so that the face of the mask was against the left side of his face. The man had greasy black hair, blackened teeth, and yellowed eyes. In front of him was a wooden tub filled with water and little golden fish running about. The vendor smiled, “Aren’t you a little old to play fish games, pal?”
Hachiyama walked up and sat a single fat silver coin on the vendor’s money box. The vendor looked from the coin to him, “Pal, can’t you read? The game only costs a couple I’en to play. A Gh’ien would buy ya fifty tries and I don’t want to rip ya off that bad.” The vendor looked the giant over, noting the intense look on his face, but relaxed as he heard Hachiyama speak so softly.
“I don’t want any fish,” He explained, “My hands are too big for fish games. No,” Hachiyama looked about and then looked down at the man, “I am looking for a friend who probably spent some money here. Probably took half your tank?”
“More like my whole tank! Little guy, right?” The vendor spat into the tub, the little fish darting up to peck at it, “Yeah, I think I know who you mean. Lucky Hideki, right?”
“Yes,” Hachiyama smiled, “I need to find him.”
“He rip ya off too, huh? He likes to hand out at the Red Octopus Onsen at the end of the street. He’s got a reputation fer it.” The vendor spat again, “And, if ya see the bastard make that silver ya handed me worth it, alright?”
Hachiyama gave a small bow and made his way down the street. The vendor looked after him and took the coin in his teeth. He winced, and smiled, “Damn, wouldn’t want to be that little bastard right now. Ain’t as Lucky as he says.”
At the end of the street was a big red building with steam and smoke pouring out from a thousand pipes that stuck out the top of the building and made a foul smelling cloud. Above the double front door was a carved red octopus with blushing cheeks and a towel on the top of its bulbous head. The girls in front of the club were wearing red kimonos that were too short for them and giving out free samples from a tray of little octopus suckers.
Hachiyama pushed his way past them without a second glance, though he did snatch a hand full of suckers and stuff them in his mouth as he made his way into the lobby. The woman behind the desk shouted at him, “Sir, can I help you?”
He looked down at her, “I am looking for Hideki-kun.”
“Well, we can’t spoil the privacy of our clients, sir.” She shooing one of the girls to go get their guards, as she tried to talk to the intimidating mountain of a man, “Perhaps, you could leave a name or wait for him here? Or maybe you’d like a bath while you wait?”
Hachiyama looked at her with his same moronic but determined expression on his face, “What is the most expensive bath you have?”
She smiled, “Big spender, huh? Well, we have an assortment of Private Bath Rooms down the hall to the righ- Hey!” She shouted after Hachiyama as he made his way down the right hall.
A couple of guards tried to stop him and he just knocked them down, “Excuse me,” and made his way to the Private Rooms.
Hachiyama heard a familiar voice up ahead and barreled right in the door, “Hideki!” He shouted with a big grin.
Sitting in the bath was a short but somehow lanky young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties with a slightly red nose. He had an extraordinarily handsome face and a very exotic appearance. His short cropped hair was the bright red of a rose, as were his thick eye brows that hung over a pair of gorgeous eyes; eyes like topaz. Hanging from his bottom lip was a long thin pipe, no thicker than his forefinger, with a red end to it and grey smoke billowing out of it into the steam above the bath. He stared at Hachiyama for a moment and then, with the pipe between his teeth, gasped, “Hachiyama! What the hell are you doing here, brother?”
Hachiyama grinned, “I knew I’d find you here, Hideki-kun. I need your help. My friend was taken away by the Lord’s men.”
“Alright, alright, just let me get dressed,” Hideki-kun stood up, “Ladies. Excuse me.” And it was then that Hachiyama noticed the pair of a gorgeous, and very naked, women that had been sitting on either side of Hideki and staring up at him in transfixed horror and confusion. The moment Hachiyama saw the girls; he blushed and quickly looked at the ground
“Excuse me.” Hachiyama echoed, awkwardly.
Hideki lay a hand on his friend’s shoulder with a smile, “C’mon, big brother, let’s get out of here.” He wore a red vest with golden zigzags running over the color and down where the buttons would normally be, the vest tied close with golden strings. He then pulled a red jacket, tying it closed with a golden sash, over his white trousers and black sandals. He dressed like a circus performer. As he led Hachiyama down the hall, he apologized for his friend’s rudeness, handed a gold coin over to the lady at the front desk, and they left.
The Lord looked at Takezou with discerning eyes, glancing down at the blade, and gesturing to the bushi who was digging his foot into the swordsman’s back. After a moment, Takezou sat up, and looked up at Lord Tenkinaka, as he spoke, “Takezou Kuroihi, you are an Initiate of the Black Sun, correct?”
Takezou nodded, “Yes, my lord.”
“And you have mastered the style?” The elder advisor, Daisuke asked, sounding curious, “At such a young age?”
“Yes and no,” Takezou answered and explained, “I know all four rises and all four falls of the form, but I have only mastered the rises. I am still training to master the four falls.”
“Is it true what they say of the Black Sun Masters?” The elder asked, “Is it true that a Black Sun Master’s blows become like the rays of the Sun? Unseen and without end?”
“I do not know. I have never met a master but,” Takezou looked at the lord’s son one last time and then back the Lord, “But a master can cut down ten men in a single stroke.”
Genereal Mamore snorted, “Nonsense! If this was so, you would not have allowed yourself to be captured.”
“As I said, I am not a master, “Takezou replied, “Yet. Now, why do you wish to know more of my style?” He asked.
The Lord looked at the man who cut down his son and took a deep breath, “Do you believe the style is something that you could teach someone else?”
“Yes and no,” Takezou repeated his earlier reply, “I believe I could teach the style but only to a student of the right spirit. The style takes nearly relentless practice but even that is not enough. A student of the Black Sun School’s body and mind must be just so for the style.”
“Could you teach the style to my youngest son, Tomi?” The Lord asked.
“I would need to meet him first,” Takezou nodded, “But perhaps.” The Lord gestured to the guards and they undid the bindings on his wrists and let him stand. The Lord gestured again and two guards left the room.
“If my son were to master this style, he would be a worthy heir and,” He looked at Takezou, “You will become a rich and powerful man.”
Hachiyama and Hideki made it to the palace gates in short time, Hachiyama explaining the situation along the way, and Hideki tell him that he would do all he could to help out Hachiyama’s friend. When they reached the front gates of the palace, Hideki stopped in front of one of the guards, “Have they taken a man inside? A swordsman?”
The guard looked down at the little man, “Yes. He killed the Lord’s son. They’ll probably execute him.”
Hachiyama shook his head, “The Lord’s son attacked him.” Hideki tried to hold Hachiyama back but, within a moment, the giant was looming over the bushi, Hachiyama’s golden eyes filled with dangerous intent, and growled “If they execute him I will tear down these walls with my hands!”
Hideki laughed nervously, “Calm down, Hachiyama,” He gulped, “They haven’t done anything yet!”
The bushi stared up at the huge man, and looked over at the other guards, who began to walk over, holding their spears. Things were about to turn ugly when a moment later the gates opened and the Lord, as well as his advisors, walked outside. The bushi turned and relaxed their postures, as the elder advisor, Daisuke asked, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Nothing, Daisuke-sama!” The bushi almost all said in unison, trying to explain, but Hachiyama let out a triumphant cry as he saw Takezou walk out and walked over to them. Without a word, he grabbed Hachiyama’s arm and led him away from the palace.
As they walked, Hachiyama asked, “What happened?”
Takezou smiled, “I was given the opportunity to become as rich and powerful as a warlord just for performing a single task.” He explained the Lord’s request.
“What went wrong?” Hideki asked, curiously.
“Well, the Lord’s son was not born for the Black Sun style,” He explained, “I had to tell the Lord that I could try to teach the boy the style but he would never be able to master it.”
“You could have lied and taught him, anyway,” Hideki explained, “You could have befriended the Lord’s son and protected him. He would think he was a master and they would be none the wiser.”
“No,” Takezou explained, “That would’ve been a risk not worth taking. The son might’ve becoming like his older brother and challenged some true master to a duel. Then, he’d be cut down and the Lord would blame me.”
The three walked down a ways, Hachiyama and Takezou telling Hideki what had happened to them in the village, and after a while, it became clear that Hideki enjoyed their company. He was a rather lighthearted and fancy free fellow, quick to joke, and if he offended anyone, he seemed to brush it off quickly enough. Before they made it back to the Red Octopus, Hachiyama asked, “Hideki-kun, how did you get rich enough to afford the most expensive bath in town?”
“Oh, that? I won it all gambling; Poker, Ball Games, Cricket Fights, Turtle Races and pachinko. ” Hideki chuckled, “They don’t call me the Lucky Rabbit for nothing.”